Saturday, 24 July 2010

Album review: Crooks and Lovers - Mount Kimbie (Hotflush)

There has been speculation for some time as to which dubstep album will fully cross over and do a 'Goldie' or a 'Roni Size' as each of these artists did during the drum n bass years. Burial was the early contender, his off kilter beats and dancehall vocal samples playing well with the coffee tables of north London and beyond. Next came Benga - by putting monster single Night on his Diary of an Afro Warrier album he was guaranteed an audience and in my opinion this has been the best long playing articulation yet of the dubstep sound.

Benga has a finger in the pie of one of 2010's main contenders - his Magnetic Man project with Skream and Artwork is likely to take dubstep to the masses, a universties tour is planned for the autumn and if the reaction they got at Benecassim is anything to go by (and given that they've already had a top ten hit) they are likely to be huge. In the meantime however we have the debut album from Mount Kimbie, subtler than Magnetic Man for sure but the London duo of Kai Campos and Dom Maker are generating lots of interest following their recent excellent Maybe's EP.

Like the also much feted James Blake, they take a more mellow appraisal of the dubstep sound and weave in lush synthesiation and ambient textures to create the feel of a sound that washes over you in many places. Crooks and Lovers continues this journey, albeit only for 35 minutes.

What soon becomes apparant is that this isn't solely a dubstep album. Rather it is a culmination of the sounds that have dominated the UK underground dance scene in the last decade. drum n bass, garage, two-step and dubstep are all in the mix to create something that might just be something new.

The other notable point of interest is Mount Kimbie's ability to combine an urban electronic sound with a more humane dimension. Snatches of voices, instrumentation and hand claps are built into the mix to create a real warmth. The album actually starts with accoustic guitar and there are a number of interludes throughout which sounds as though the guys are just playing about in the studio. While not similar in sound to say Boards of Canada, they share a similar understanding of the need to bring warmth to digital experimentation.

A few tracks (Carbonated, Before I Move Off) make use of loops of fragmented human vocal to create the sense of a vocal and yet no words are ever heard. Before I move off has a slightly eastern vibe at the front end yet ends up as a fairly conventional garage tune while Carbonated somehow manages to sound both fast and slow at the same time. It has a lovely gentle feel to it and is typical of the sense of invention throughout.

Other tracks create a wide range of moods and feels. Ode to Bear is mournful in feel and you can almost imagine a guy with a dustcart cleaning the grimy city streets at 4am. Mayor meanwhile is definately one for the dancefloor -it manages to use organic sounds to create a loopy rural garage vibe if such a thing exists. Blind Night Errand features a heavy sub woofer bass and is much more in Drum n Bass teritory and only on Ruby do you get the sense of what might be regarded as a conventional dubstep tune - its clicking beats and atmospheric synths typical of the dominating sound of the last few years.

As a whole the album is diverse and features a dizzying array of styles and yet at no time does it feel over complex or cluttered. I'm fairly sure it won't cross-over in a big way, the hooks aren't strong enough for the mainstream but one can't help but be impressed with the sense of adventure and the clear love of the protagonists for clubland culture. This is an excellent release and a suitable starting point for those who want to hear what is going on in electronic music right now. Repeated listens will be rewarded as the subtleties contained within reveal themselves.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The 20 greatest soundtracks

What makes a great soundtrack? For one it has to have at least one piece of music that takes you straight back to the film. Think of the use of Layla in Goodfella's or Lust for Life in Trainspotting. Second it has to work as a body of work both in the film itself and seperately at home. This is often difficult as the incidental instrumentals that work so well on the big screen often underwhelm when subjected to hime listening. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly of all it has to hang together as a whole - like any album (and perhaps more so) it needs to take the listener on a narrative journey which echos the storyline.

Many soundtracks have one or two tracks that really stand out (Pulp Fiction, The Deerhunter) or work well as in incidental score (The Proposition, There Will Be Blood) but what I've sought to capture here are those, irrespective of whether they are original scores or not, that work both in capturing the feel of the film but also stand alone as a great collection.

A few that missed the cut? Shaft, The Last King of Scotland (great Afrobeat), Donnie Darko (worthy of inclusion for the Killing Moon alone), Rocky, Resevoir Dogs and perhaps most controversially - Bullit (Lalo Shifrin's finest hour many would argue)..disagree with my choices? Leave yours below....

20. The taking of Pelham 1,2,3

A really enjoyable soundtrack in the traditional sense. Dramatic opening sequence followed by lots of jazzy incidental music. Composed by David Shire the soundtrack manages to convey the urgency (and indeed seediness)of the New York subway which was so central to the movie which starred Walter Mathau.

19. Big Lebowski

A little bit uneven this one if I'm honest. The mix of country, opera, singer-songwriter and classical doesn't quite ebb and flow in the way you would like but there are two absolute killer tunes on this one. Firstly Kenny Rogers' Just dropped in which is used so well in the film during the bowling sequence and then a latin version of Hotel California from the Gypsy Kings. Great fun and works so well in a brilliant movie.

18. Bugsy Malone

Perhaps a surprising inclusion but there are some great songs here. Tomorrow, memorably sung by the black cleaner is unexpectedly touching, Fat Sam's grand slam a great reprisal of various clapper girl tunes and We could have been anything that we wanted to be is a corker. A saw a freind play this at a wedding at the end of the night once and the whole place went off!

17. Vampiros Lesbos

Think go-go girls and psychadelic projector visuals. This would be the perfect soundtrack for a wife swapping party. The film was a 1971 erotic horror movie and the soundtrack incudes a nice instrumental version of Satisfaction by the Stones and the tune that Missy stole the Get your freak on sample from (the vocal not the indian bit). The track you will recognise immediately (honest you will!) is alluringly entitled The Lions and the Cucumber.

16. Life Aquatic

Well known for Seu Jeorge's Bowie covers. Busker versions of Life on Mars, Rebel Rebel - you get the drill. Also notable for its use of Sven Liabeck's Inner Space. Sven was an Aussie soundtrack composer and this is some of his best work.

15. Dazed and Confused

...or the frat house party that punk forgot. American white collar seventies rock pretty much all the way. A few numbers (Ted Nugent, Lynyrd Skynyrd) go on a bit and there are a few too many 'come on baby's but there is much to enjoy including the guilty pleasures of Kiss, Alice Cooper and ZZ Top while the Nazareth track shows pretty much where W Axl Rose got his vocal technique from. My only quibble is that Aerosmith's Sweet Emotion which opens the film and always sets the hairs on my neck off whenever I see and hear it isn't even included.

14. A Fistfull of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More

Few names immediately scream soundtrack more than Ennio Morricone - still performing to this day (and definately on my list of acts to see live). These two soundtracks are often available together and well worth picking up. Its all spooky whistles and rolling drums and it immediately captures the spirit of the wild west (Arizona not Devon). For a few dollars more was later regurgitated as The Mexican which in turn became a staple of the B-Boys of the Bronx and thus was in some part responsible for the birth of hip hop.

13. Paris Texas

A piece of music as notable as much for what it lacks as much as what it is. The sense of space in Ry Cooder's slide guitar is relaxing in the best way. Dialogue from the film and 40's tunes are interspersed with some of Cooder's best work.

12. Bladerunner

If there is any soundtrack that is more atmospheric then I've yet to hear it. Sometimes, as Brian Eno or the Orb would no doubt tell you, less is more. OK, so Rachel's theme is all a bit 'Clannad' but Vangelis' 1982 score set the template for ambient sci-fi soundtracks and his mellow synths perfectly complimented Ridley Scott's strange future. A 1994 CD re-release includes extra tracks. A record to smoke and dream to.

11. Trainspotting

Very much of its time and overheard at the time by these ears at least but any soundtrack boasting Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Blur, Plup and Brian Eno is going to be quality. The funny thing about this one on relistening to it is that the tracks you remember as the standouts (Iggy, Underworld) slightly irritate while the ones that at the time were deemed filler (Primal Scream, /Elastica) reveal themselves to be of the highest quality. The Primals track in particular could sit on a soundtrack of almost any era since the 1950's and showcases some fantastic musicianship.

10. Performance

If you are looking for the definitive soundtrack to swinging 60's London most people will point you in the direction of either Blow up or Get Carter. This is better than both and much more varied. Dirty Rolling Stones songs (Memo to Turner), Slide Guitar from Ry Cooder (Get Away, Powis Square) and indian Mysticism (The Hashishin) transport you immediately to a sleazy London Party (who mentioned Mars bars?!)

9. High Fidelity

Perhaps understandable that a film about record nerds has a great soundtrack. Dry the Rain by the Beta Band stands out as one of the great tracks and other stand outs include Smog's Cold Blooded Old Times and The Velvet's Oh! Sweet nuthin'. Even Jack Black's version of Let's Get it On isn't as bad as you might imagine. Quality most of the way...

8. The Harder They Come

Classic reggae from beginning to end. You can get it if you really want, Many Rivers to Cross and the title track are all time greats. Pressure Drop is a great bit of roots reggae too... I saw Jimmy Cliff a few years ago at Glastonbury on a sunny afternoon and it was perfect. A fantastic songwriter - period. Another great reggae soundtrack is Rockers.

7. Morvern Callar

Possibly the coolest soundtrack ever put together - Can, Aphex Twin, Velvet Underground and Stereolab are all perenial favourites of music critics and muso snobs - but this collection is also extremely listenable. Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra's Some Velvet Morning is like a duet between beauty and the beast while the Boards of Canada track is predictably wonderful.

6. Shalimar
Legendary Bollywood soundtrack which goes for a pretty penny (£30-£50) these days. This has a number of notable songs but can be enjoyed as a whole album as well. One two cha cha cha is a particular favourite of mine and like many of the Vampiros Lesbos tracks would sit nicely in a set of 60's style parlour pop. There are two editions of Shalimar on vinyl - one with a very mice gatefold (which is obviously more expensive...).

5. Easy Rider

A classic ride through 60's counterculture. Don't Bogart That Joint - forever amusing to teenagers, The frazzled guitars and spacy voices of the Byrd's on Wasn't Born to Follow, The beautiful The Weight by the Band and the classic tracks from Stepenwolf The Pusher and Born to Be Wild - forever the bikers anthem.

4. The Royal Tenenbaums

A surprisingly good collection this including Nico, The Clash, Nick Drake and Paul Simon amogst others. What makes this one so good is that the whole think flows really nicely - unlike many others which combine original scores with pop music. Ends with a enjoyably chinzey Hey Jude.

3. Midnight Cowboy

It would be sacrelidge to have a soundtracks collection without the undisputed master - John Barry. The Barry compositions here are excellent (you might recognise the track Florida Fantasy as the theme of 80's kids show Wildtrack). The theme in particular is memorable - a wonderfully downbeat melody played by harmonica. The real highlight though is Nilson's Everybody's Talking which must be one of the most effortlessly beautiful songs ever sung by man.

2. Troubleman

People talk about What's going On as Marvin Gaye's classic album and rightly so but in some ways this 1972 soundtrack goes even further in showcasing his maturity as a songwriter. Gaye explores jazz as well as the soulful landscapes for which he was becoming known to create a thoroughly enjoyable listen. The influence of the Moog which was also a key component in Stevie Wonder's sound at the time is also evident here. T Plays it Cool is a stand out as is Marvin's vocal on the title track. I could have compiled 20 great Blaxploitation soundtracks alone but for me this pips Shaft, Superfly and They call me Mr Tibbs as the best...

1. Wickerman

If you haven't seen the film, make sure you do - one of the all time classic Bristish Films. Its set on an isolated Scottish Island and as such the soundtrack (which was thought lost for many years) is dominated by the sort of ethereal folk that has been so much back in vogue over the last decade. Snippets of dialogue from the film are interspersed with creepy pagan folk songs to create a real sense of dread. Christopher Lee's proclomation of 'Come...its time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man' is particularly terrifying. Paul Giovanni who composed the music eventually died of Aids in New York but his work in taking traditional arrangements and reworking them for the film will live on for many years to come. This soundtrack takes you immediately to the outer reaches of the Scottish Islands and is as mad as a hatter but all the better for it. Search it out.

Album review: Marcberg - Roc Marciano (Fat Beats)

I, like many others, have bemoaned the lack of decent hip hop in recent years. There have been exceptions, the last Mos Def album was fantastic and The Roots' new one is surprisingly good. Its fair to say though, that a lot of the most popular hip hop acts have become a parody either using over obvious samples (Mr West), playing out cliches around champagne and ho's (Jigga) or just revealing themselves to be a bit shit (P Diddy). What was originally great about hip hop - its a ability to articulate the lives of those on the streets, it playful sense of fun and its innovative use of a collage of sounds all seems to have been lost in recent years. Troubled by this fact I was determined to uncover a winner to restore my faith and so plumped to listen to the debut album by the highly rated Roc Marciano.

Marciano has had an interesting career. Having initially come to attention pre- millenium via Busta Rhymes he joined the so called Flipmode Squad who worked primarily with Pete Rock. He's worked with some of the biggest producers in the game already as well as guesting on a number of albums but until this year he was yet to release a record of his own. That wait is now over.

Its fair to say that Roc doesn't lack confidence -
you take my rhymes in doses, could prove fatal like tuberculosis
is just one of a number of proclamations he makes and its fair to say that Roc's approach is very much in keeping with previous heros from the east coast from Rakim to Wu.

Roc's subject matter is very in keeping with what you'd expect from a New York gangsta rapper - think coke, guns and ho's and you're on the money. This is one of the albums strengths (it paints a strong visual picture) but is also undoubtedly its greatest failing. The predictable lyrics and gangsta posturing get tiresome after a while and you can't help but wish that Roc would go home to his mum for a bit of love and sing about his girlfriend or his Iphone or his holiday - anything but comic book Wire-esque violence. Song titles include Pimptro, Snow and Thugs Prayer so you get the picture.

By now you're probably thinking this ain't for me and for many people it won't be but there are a number of redeeming features. Firstly, Roc is a really decent rapper - he's got a great voice which, as it should, draws you into his tales. Second, the production throughout is fantastic. If you like Wu-esque strings, Nas' Illmatic or Premier's mellow grooves then you'll find much to love here. It's a crime is a good example of the production - its string and soul samples clearly transcend the gangsta genre. Raw deal too has some excellent strings in the mix accompanying moody slow beats, only the high 'bitch' count on the track ruins it. We do it features Ka, a guy I'd not heard of before but his rapping is ace - really rough and dirty and its another excellent tune.

The best tracks of all are when he slows it down. The aforementioned Thug's Prayer being one good example. Roc inhabits the world of a strung out cokehead and manages to create a real empathy. Hide my tears meanwhile, builds around an old soul sample and builds nicely.

Individual tracks work very well -the title track is particularly strong with production and rhymes combining to deadly effect - but the overall sense is one of slight disappointment. The album bears poor comparison with say Ghostface Killah's Fishscale as it lacks the humour and variety found in the Wu Man's best work. The gangsta posturing results in a feeling that once the album is over that you can't really face listening to it again. This is a real shame as its clear that there are few MCs out there with Roc's talent. My advice is that he needs to change his gangsta ways and get out more to find some new subject matter. If he does, we might just have a classic on our hands!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Album review: 1 inch/1/2 mile - Grasscut (Ninja Tune).

An attempt to define what it is to be English has been omnipresent in popular music from these Isles since at least the Kink's 1968 masterpiece Village Green Preservation Society. Artists from Jethro Tull through Blur to the Streets have sought to recapture the essence of what it is to live in Albion.

The latest such effort comes from the world of electronica. Grasscut's debut is released on (the as ever excellent) Ninja Tune and combines old 78's, spoken word samples and ambient techno to excellent effect. The period it evokes is the post war era through to the dawn of Thatcherism and the decline in manufacturing. 1946 samples a woman talking about the effects of rationing while glitchy beats create the feel of rusting production lines in the excellent Old Machines .

The most obvious influence that springs to mind is Lemon Jelly, but this is to do Grasscut a disservice. Like Lemon Jelly they build up collages around spoken word samples but there is a degree of forward thinking here which is often sadly lacking in their predecessors. The Grasscut sound is, on a number of occassions, considerably more upbeat. Having said that, a number of tracks feature what can only be described as a 'music box' breakdown - think of the sound of a ballerina in a velvet cased box and you get the idea. The track Muppet is just one that utilises this effect but also manages to combine an edgy dance sound and climaxes with an ambient choir.

Tin Man and In her Pride are both lovely. Tin Man starts with a piano and cello before giving way to what sounds like an Indian vocal and a Flaming Lips style rythym section. The Lips are clearly another influence of Grasscut, as is Beck, most notably on opener Highdown and on The Door In the Wall which is undoubtedly the most commercial track on the album and wouldn't be out of place on an indie radio station playlist.

It goes without saying that 1 inch/1/2 mile has the feel of a soundtrack. Library music, Krautrock and classical sounds are all also in the mix somewhere and yet over the course of the album one feels that this Sussex collective could have pushed things even further. I await their live dates and second album with relish.